Cooking is one of the highest return on investment skills that you can learn.
Not only will cooking at home save you a ton of money, it will give you a deeper appreciation of the food you eat and help you live longer. Who wouldn’t you want to do something that helps you out in the health and wealth department?
Over the past few decades, the food industry has caused our cultural culinary practices to slowly disappear (along with the money in our wallet) through the availability of convenience foods, the prevalence of fast food, and our perceived lack of time.
At a time when the average American has less than $1,000 in their savings account, we are spending $3,154 a year on eating outside of our homes. That is just craziness.
People just are not cooking anymore and it is making them fat, sick, and poor.
Now, just to be clear, I don’t think there is anything wrong with “outsourcing” the problem of your hunger to a restaurant. I love the occasional meal out, especially for things that I can not make myself at home.
Once Ms. BYF and I started seriously tracking our expenses, we could not believe that we were spending upwards of $400-500 a month on restaurant food, well above the national average. It was also the first thing we decided to cut back on, and it ended up also being the easiest.
I sincerely believe that cooking and preparing your own food is a cornerstone of frugality. Once you start building your skills in the kitchen you will find that food at restaurants is almost always a rip-off, poor quality, and made to the tastes of the masses (which is usually adverse to spice, a.k.a. flavor).
I have been cooking daily for years now, and I promise that if you change your paradigm when it comes to preparing your own food you will start to not only love cooking, you will find it to be one of the best changes in habit you have ever made.
Here are the common issues and excuses people have for why they are not cooking at home:
“Cooking is hard”
Cooking is a skill, not something some people are born with.
Just like with any other skill, you need to focus on the craft before you become proficient. If you are the type of person that has given up on learning how to cook, take another crack at it from the mindset that you will need to approach cooking just like you are learning how to ride a bike for the first time.
Luckily it is an easy skill to become proficient in, as cooking is all about following formulas. For instance, here are some of the most famous ingredient equations which all = flavor:
- Lime juice + cilantro + onion (tacos/burritos/enchiladas)
- Rice, beans + tomatoes + sweet potatoes (red beans and rice)
- Garbanzo beans + curry powder + coconut (curry base)
- Apple + maple syrup + cinnamon (desserts, oatmeal)
- White miso + tahini + garlic + ginger (salad/grain bowl dressing)
…you get the point.
A stalwart in my book collection that I recommend to chefs of all skill levels is The Vegetarian Flavor Bible, a fantastic reference guide that breaks down the best flavor formulas that allow ingredients to work together. This book will help you start whipping up great simple dishes quickly with what you already have in your kitchen without paging through your cookbooks for ideas.
I use The Vegetarian Flavor Bible in tandem with new recipes to see if there are other ingredients that I can use (which the author may have missed) that will add depth and variation to what I am already making, adding another dimension of value to my pre-existing cookbook collection.
To further hone your skills I also recommend that you watch YouTube videos to learn general knife skills and read cookbooks.
When you eat out at a restaurant, analyze it, figure out why it tastes the way it does, and think about what ingredient formulas they are using. Become a food detective. Start learning how to make the dishes you love.
While you are at the beginning of your learning curve, do not give up. You will make some things that are either mediocre or simply not good. Use those as learning experiences for what not to do again!
Remember: You do not need to be a world-class chef to make great tasting food.
“I do not have time to cook”
This is the universal excuse for why most people do not do the things they should, and it is no different for cooking.
The funny thing is that, if you plan ahead, packing your lunch and cooking at home will actually save you time. There is no travel time, no poor service, no searching online for reviews, ordering, and waiting for the check when you eat at home — just cooking, eating, and cleaning dishes. While eating fast food is surely faster than cooking, the negative impacts on your health will end up costing you later in life.
You must plan ahead to gain this benefit. You have to meal plan and when planning you need to take your calendar into consideration.
For instance, you probably are not going to want to cook a complicated dish for dinner on the busiest day of your week. For those days, plan to cook more than you need one night so that you can eat leftovers when you need to work late, essentially creating your own convenience food.
Planning ahead also gives you the benefit of saving money at the grocery store. Instead of walking around aimlessly, you will have a list of everything you need and you can stick to it, making you less susceptible to impulse purchases. By planning ahead, you are setting yourself up for success.
“I get frustrated when I cook”
In my opinion, this the most overlooked reason why people do not like to cook. They get frustrated for a number of reasons, and understandably, they decide to outsource their meals instead of stressing themselves out.
If this sounds like you, do these things:
- Get the tools you need to do the job.
There is a reason that professional musicians do not play $100 guitars, and a reason construction workers do not use cheap tools: If you do not have the right tools, the job will take longer, cause stress, and probably end up producing a low-quality product.
As you know, I am all about frugality, but being frugal does not mean being cheap, and this is a classic case of needing to spend money to save money. There is not really a way around it: You are going to need to invest in proper equipment.
- Prepare correctly.
Most people read their cookbook, cut their veggies, get out their ingredients, and cook at the same time.
This makes cooking feel frantic and overloads the brain. Instead, take a moment to prepare. Read the recipe in full, get out your ingredients, measure your spices, do your prep (e.g. chop everything). Then when you start cooking, all you need to think about is the task at hand.
The bonus of getting everything ready first is that you can do some dishes during downtime. If you get good at this, the only dirty dishes in your kitchen while you eat should be the pot the food is in and the plates you are eating from.
“What I cook will not taste good”
There will be some dishes that you cannot make taste the same at home as they do at the restaurant. This is because you probably, in good conscience, will not want to dump the amount of grease and salt into your food that restaurants do to get it to taste that way. This is OK. You will actually notice your taste buds change their flavor preferences and pretty soon you will probably find restaurant food too fatty or too salty, which is better for your long term health (frugal bonus!).
Semi-related: Not every meal needs to be the best meal you have ever had. It is OK to have rice and beans for dinner when you are in a pinch. We have to remember we are not Queens and Kings.
“Cooking is messy”
Yes, if you cook you will have to clean. However, there are ways to make this easier on yourself:
Cook once, clean once, and eat four times. In other words, make food that you can eat for future lunches or dinners. By doubling every recipe you make you are doing dishes less, planning ahead, and cooking less.
Make a system for your dishes. Ms. BYF and I have a nice system where I cook, we eat, she does the dishes while I dry and put them away. I also unload the dishwasher as soon as the dishes are clean. This helps keep our kitchen clean by making cleaning just part of cooking. There is nothing worse than letting dishes pile up and having to stand there for an hour scraping dried food off of plates and bowls.
“Eating out is part of my social life!”
Before eating out became a national pastime, we used to invite people into our home and cook for them. It is a lovely way to get to know new people and deepen relationships with old friends.
The best part about inviting people over is that when you prepare a meal for them it means more to them than if you picked up the check! It is so rare that people cook for each other that when we do so now, our guests truly value the gesture.
Ms. BYF and I also throw quarterly potlucks where we pick a theme and invite people to bring their home cooked food. It is a great way to throw a party and spend relatively little money!
Cooking from home will become a great pleasure and hobby if you do it enough. You will find that the benefits of saving money, learning how to make dishes exactly the way you want them, and being healthier make the work worth your while.
How are you or how did you overcome the habit of eating out? What are your biggest challenges?